Iconic Skyscraper Photo: Staged Stunt

Iconic Skyscraper Photo: Staged Stunt

The iconic 1932 photo of construction workers eating lunch on a steel beam high above Rockefeller Center, attributed to Charles C. Ebbets, is considered a documentary classic. There are many tributes (like the Sergio Furnari sculpture above) and parodies. Corbus, which owns the photo rights to “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” says it’s licensed more often than any of the snaps in the firm’s 20-million-image catalog.

But Ebbets was not then a photo journalist; he was photographic director for Rockefeller Center, a publicist. He posed many clever promotional photos during the construction project, and the working lunch was likely one of them, less a casual affair than a staged event. And while he was a skilled and experienced photographer, Ebbets may not have taken the famous shot that was printed in the  New York Herald Tribune on September 2, 2012. Two contract photographers, Thomas Kelley and William Leftwich, were also working that day, and might have taken the picture.

Working guys taking a lunch break or publicity stunt: Does it matter? It didn’t matter eighty years ago, and it doesn’t now. Born in the Great Depression, the image was a tribute to working Americans, and remains so after eight decades.


“A casual lunchtime snap, or the world’s most iconic publicity stunt?” Nick Clark, The Independent

“Lunch Atop a Skyscraper Photograph: The Story Behind the Famous Shot,” Megan Gambino, Smithsonian Magazine

“Men at Lunch: The Untold Story of A City’s Legend.” A film by Seán Ó Cualáin  (Website)

“Revisiting a Lunch at Perilous Heights,” Jesse Newman, New York Times blog

“Photographer Profile ~ Charles C. Ebbets,” Anthony Luke, Anthony Luke’s Not-Just-Another-Photoblog Blog


Short link: http://wp.me/p6sb6-ehZ

Cellphone photo (of a Sergio Furnari sculpture) by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not boring or obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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